Bermondsey Village

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Bermondsey has had many incarnations. Originally marshland, it has been the site of an ancient abbey, spa, hub of the leather trade and slum. All of these have left traces in the landscape.

By tradition, the name Bermondsey is thought to be derived from Beormund, a Saxon overlord, and the Old English word for an island in a river, an ‘ea’ or ‘ey’, hence Beormund’s-ey. It appears in a papal letter dating from the early 8th Century as Vermundesei, and as Bermundesy in the Domesday Book of 1086.

These records show that a monastery was established in the area as early as 700 AD and a new priory was built in 1082. Later it became Bermondsey Abbey and remained an important focus of local life until the Dissolution.

Leather tanning pits were probably first located in Bermondsey to spare residents of the densely populated city from their stench. A map of 18th Century Bermondsey shows the pits and nearby ‘tenter grounds’ where dyed cloth was slung between hooks (hence the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’!) to dry. At the time Bermondsey was a leafy, semi-rural district, full of orchards and market gardens. An enterprising businessman even developed a nearby spring as a spa, which operated between 1770 and 1804.

50 years on, the leather trade had grown and other industries, notably food production, millinery and brewing, had found a home in Bermondsey. Factory workers packed into tenement blocks that became notorious after an outbreak of cholera in 1849. The squalid living conditions in Jacob’s Island, adjacent to the river at the northern tip of Bermondsey, were immortalised by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist.

Public works in the late 1860s and 1870s attempted to tackle the overcrowding and lack of hygiene in Bermondsey, but its reputation for squalor lasted well into the 20th Century. Further improvements in the 1920s and ‘30s led to provision of open space and tree-planting programmes, and the results can still be appreciated today.

Bermondsey’s greatest test came in World War II. Its proximity to London’s docks made it vulnerable to German bombing raids, and many buildings had to be demolished as a result of bomb damage.

In 1972 the Greater London Council designated Bermondsey Street and adjoining streets as a Conservation Area. This means it is ‘an area of special architectural or historic interest, the character of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.

Redevelopment of old warehouses for residential and office use during the 1980s and ‘90s has given Bermondsey a new lease of life. Today it is a popular location for companies in the creative sector, and has a surprisingly intimate atmosphere given its location near the heart of London.